By Garth Nix
Sabriel was written in 1995 by Garth Nix, right when I was in high school and devouring fantasy books at an absurd rate. Strangely enough though... I had never heard of it. In fact it wasn't my buddy Russell mentioned the book to me almost 20 years after it had been published that I found out about it. Russell would then go on to buy the first 3 books in the series for me as a Birthday gift. So I'd like to take a minute to say thank you to him for that. Now to the book!
Sabriel is named after the title character, a young lady graduating from Wyverley College, an all girls school (that is not an actual college, it's a boarding school in the British fashion). It's an unremarkable upper class institution, expect for one thing, it's very close to the wall. What's the wall you ask? It is the barrier separating Ancelstierre (the nation the school is in) from the Old Kingdom. See, Ancelstierre is pretty much like early 20th century England. There's a class structure but it's a fairly modern capitalist one as opposed to a feudal one. There are cars, but they are rare. Soldiers carry bolt action rifles and have machine guns. The further away from the wall, the less powerful magic is until it stops working at all and you find yourself in a world that would seem very filmilarfamiliar to us. The Old Kingdom on the other hand... Is a place where magic works and technology doesn't. It is a wild, savage place where authority is breaking down under the assault of dead. Where the armies of the dead and those who command them are gnawing away at the very fabric of life and few can stop them.
There are some few obstacles in their way. To explain let me discuss the magic presented in this book. There are 3 kinds. Charter magic is the magic of order and law, created by the memorizing and utterances of certain symbols. Charter Mages are marked with symbols on their foreheads. Furthermore magical devices called Charter stones are set up at town and villages to help strengthen and protect Charter Magic and the people who depend on it (which is pretty much everyone). That said it's a fairly free form magic. It works by combining different symbols to produce various effects. The more symbols you know, the more combinations and the more you can do. It's the kind of magic where it makes sense for it's users to be constantly in a book. Which I appreciate.
Free Magic is dangerous and often practiced by nonhuman creatures who are for the most part very hostile to humanity. Last is necromancy, which just in case this is your first exposure to this stable of fantasy, is magic concerning the summoning, creation and control of the (un)dead. The necromancy in this book is presented very interestingly. First of all necromancers have the ability to enter death, which is divided into 9 parts with gates. The first ward of death is a giant rushing river that washes the dead deeper into death. All the wards of death have a water theme more less and those without ability or a whole lot of willpower get washed deeper into death until they past the 9th gate from which there is return. This actually explains a few of the weakness of the dead, for example they can't cross running water. Nor can they stand natural sunlight. So the dead tend to attack at night or on days where the sun cannot be seen. In the old kingdom no one is happy about cloudy days.
Additionally every necromancer uses bells as a tool to control the dead (the phrase undead doesn't appear in this book which is interesting). The bells are stored very carefully as it is the sound they make that produces the magic (I assume that I could produce magic by ringing these bells just really screwed up magic). They tend to be worn across the chest wrapped and stoppered to prevent accidental ringing. Each bell has a different effect (one compels obedience, another sleep, another kills everything that hears it, including the ringer... It is not a popular bell) and has to be ring in a certain way and pattern to control the effect. I'll admit I find it fascinating the use of sound in the magic system. Nix isn't the first to do this. Mercedes Lackey liked to use music in her magic systems for example, while Christopher Stasheff really liked using poetry and rhymes in his magic. This is the first time I've run into bells however or anything comparable though. I'll admit part of the fascination is due to my upbringing. My parents are deaf so music was not something I encountered regularly until I was a teen. Even then it was my little sister who really introduced me to stuff. So all things musical seem rather exotic to me honestly. I mean if I wrote a magic system it would likely depend more on gestures (or well... sign language) and will then the spoken word or song. It would certainly never occur to me without outside prompting to make musical instruments an important part of it.
Ahem, the book yes. The main obstacle to ye olde forces of darkness is the Abhorsen, who is well... The state necromancer. His/her job isn't to raise the dead but put them back and make sure they stay put back! To this end the Abhorsen is allowed to use charter magic, various magic items and of course necromancy. It is a family job, being passed down through the family line. In this case the current Abhorsen is the father of our main character Sabriel. Let me talk about her for a minute here.
Sabriel as I mentioned at the opening of the story is attending an all girls boarding school in Ancelstierre. That said she was born in the Old Kingdom but the Abhorsen felt it best that she grow up away from the Old Kingdom. This may have to do with the fact that the Old Kingdom is going full on Dark Ages Mad Max on us. Sabriel is unaware of this. While educated in Charter Magic and Necromancy by her father in secret, I found the idea that he appears to her every month to teach her things really interesting as well. She has friends and a vague idea of going to university with them to expand upon her future just like a normal girl. All of this is put on hold however when a dead creatures appears with a message from dear old Dad. That message? “HELP!”
This finds Sabriel inheriting the office of the Abhorsen much earlier then anyone would have liked and without much time for on the job learning. Now to be fair to dear old Dad (yes, I'm sticking to that!) he also sent his gear. His magic sword (and badge of office), his books and his bells. Sabriel is now let loose on a mission to find out what happen to her father, where he is and to rescue him. To do that she has to get into the Old Kingdom, a place she hasn't been since she was a toddler, figure out who she can trust and where she can find clues. She's not without resources here, she has all the knowledge her father gave her and she is able to locate some companions. To boil it down, she's got the tools, she's got the talent but her intell on the ground is nonexistent and she's more then a little blind to the situation.
The first of these is the slightly untrustworthy and rather magical Mogget. Mogget is currently a talking cat, who has been bound to serve the Abhorsen but does have his own agenda. That said his actions are limited due to a magical collar on his neck that only the Abhorsen can remove. It's generally a bad idea to do so however. Mogget is a bit of a smart ass, but he's fairly funny in a laid back sardonic kind of way. There's also Touchstone, who unlike Mogget is human but is hiding a lot. He's a fairly impressive in a number of ways, although there are a number of times where like Sabriel I want to smack him in the mouth and tell him to stop being a jackass. In this case his jackassery comes in the form of to much bowing and scraping. Which drives Sabriel half insane. Opposing them is an army of the dead and necromancers, arrayed under a mysterious villain who had been working to undermine peace, law and order in the Old Kingdom for a very long time now. By the time Sabriel shows up this enemy seems to have all but won. His armies and minions are lurking everywhere including in the very places of power of the Old Kingdom, they are breaking Charter stones (which is done using a very dark ritual which requires killing a Charter Mage and using their fresh blood) and gathering larger and larger armies of the dead. Things look very dark and our hopes ride on a freshly graduated school girl of 18, a magical cat-thingy and a guy who even tell us his real name. It's enough to make you want to invest in a boathouse.
The mostly takes place in the Old Kingdom, but with enough scenes in Ancelstierre to increase the alien strangeness of the Old Kingdom. As a setting itself the Old Kingdom harkens back more to the old sword and sorcery settings then Lord of the Rings. There are no elves, there are no orcs, dwarves or trolls. There are creatures and spirits born of magic, wicked magic users who thrown away the very idea of restraint and a few men and women who fight them using magic and blade. I... Really like this book.
It's not perfect of course. Sabriel and Touchstone could have used more time together, more basic interaction really. The book itself moves a break neck pace, which leaves me wanting more as I feel I didn't get to see to much of the characters. Honestly the characters are fairly well done but I feel like there should have been more character work laced into this book. Ah well. Sabriel by Garth Nix's get an B+. I really enjoyed this book and wish more people knew about it.
Next week, Son of the Black Sword.